Thursday, April 30, 2015

In the Crawl Space, A Box

Joan and I have moved around a lot since we got married almost thirty-five years ago. We’ve lived at eight addresses since then, two for a decade each (next year we will have lived on Reed Drive for longer than we’ve ever lived anywhere as a married couple) and the rest for stays of one, two, or three years each. So you’d think we’d be pretty good at moving by now. I’d think that too! And we are, more or less. We’ve become better at jettisoning things we don’t and won’t ever want again or use, for example. We’ve learned to avoid the ridiculous expense we underwent in our third year of marriage, when we paid a fortune (or what then seemed to us like a fortune) to squirrel away in some storage facility in the Bronx most of the contents of our apartment on 111th Street, only to throw most of it away three years later when we took a good look at what we had saved and decided that we didn’t want hardly any of it after all, that it was all junk. Which it mostly was.

Our system, shared by many, is that we deal with 95% of our stuff in the first two weeks at a new address and the remaining 5% over the next few years. But that doesn’t take into account the boxes we end up never dealing with, the few boxes that somehow never get opened, that we don’t seem ever to find the time actually to open and deal with even by bringing their contents to the curb for pickup.  And so I found myself in the crawl space over the garage before Pesach rooting around among the relics of former stages of our family’s existence—I was, if you all must know, looking for a Pesach tablecloth that Joan and both remember clearly from our home in southern California and haven’t seen since, yet can’t imagine we wouldn’t have taken with us when we moved here in 2002 and certainly wouldn’t ever have thrown out—and it was in that least appealing of all our home's accessible spaces that I noticed a box I couldn’t recall ever having seen before.

It felt like the beginning—the part before the opening titles—of some ridiculous horror movie, the kind that begins with a normal person going about his daily activities and then coming unawares across the portal to a different dimension or a distant universe. (Now that I think of it, Stephen King’s great novel 11/22/63 begins in exactly that way and that actually was first-rate fiction. So, for that matter, does Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it was the introduction of myself into the tableau that made it feel ridiculous.) I looked again. It was a box that, according to the printed information on its side, once held file 9x12 manila envelopes. But it was clearly a box of new envelopes no longer: it was dented and slightly crushed and there was duct tape sealing it. On the front someone, possibly myself, had scrawled my own initials, indicating—what else?—that the contents belonged to me or pertained to me. But I couldn’t recall ever having seen that box, not lately and not ever.

You can’t stand up in a crawl space. (Otherwise, they’d be called stand spaces!)  Nor is there a window to open. So it was dusty and cold up there—which was no surprise given the temperature outside—and there I was staring at this strange box that I had absolutely no recollection of ever having seen before.  For a strange moment, I wondered if the sought-after tablecloth could possibly have been in the box. If this had been an O. Henry story (or a Twilight Zone episode), maybe. But in the real world, why would I have put a Pesach tablecloth in a cardboard box by itself and then sealed it with duct tape? Curious, I crawled over to the box, picked it up…and carried it downstairs, where it then proceeded to spend the entire holiday gathering dust under my desk. And then, just last week, I carried it into the kitchen and, using one of our less good steak knives, opened it to see what was inside.

My younger readers will not know this, but there was a time before the cloud, before (even) the internet itself. People wrote things out with pens on paper. Or they typed them on big machines that didn’t correct your spelling or allow you insert hyperlinks into your prose. (Of course, that wasn’t really an issue, since there was nothing to link your prose to anyway.) When you were done typing your work onto a piece of paper you had previously inserted by hand into the machine, it fell onto the floor if you didn’t retrieve it in time. (That much, at least, modern printers haven’t changed.) And then you put another piece of paper into the machine and started over. If you wanted to insert a paragraph onto the first page of a four-page essay, you typed the entire thing over from the beginning. It was that simple!

Since I began saving them electronically, first to disks and then to drives and finally to the cloud itself, I have delivered as of this week 209 eulogies for exactly that many deceased individuals. I knew personally almost every one of the people I’ve eulogized too, some well and others less so. On that list of 209 are two of my own relatives, my father and my Aunt Molly. The other 207 were congregants or, occasionally, others whom I was asked to eulogize as a gesture of kindness to a bereaved family that had no one else to whom they could turn. But before those 209 were a different 100 or so whose eulogies I wrote, delivered, and then—this all came right back to me as I stood in my kitchen and peered into the box—and put into a box that once had held file folders and was just the right size, therefore, to hold eulogies printed on standard-size typing paper. (Other than a few times at the very beginning of my career, I haven’t ever delivered a eulogy other than from a prepared text.) And that was the box—still unopened from our Vancouver days—I found in the crawl space and the contents of which I have now been reading through for the last few days.

You see the passage of time in such a box differently than when you experience it on a daily basis. Lots of the eulogized, at least in the beginning of my career, were born in the nineteenth century. (That hasn’t been the case for years now, obviously. But it was then!) Did I really know someone once who was alive when Chester A. Arthur was in the White House? I did! Among the eulogized was a Red Army veteran who was present at Stalingrad, an IDF veteran who participated in the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, and several men who landed in France on D-Day. None of that sounds that amazing…but what of the man, in his 90s when he passed away in the late 1970s, who spent time in the trenches during the First World War and who had been present at Passchendaele when the Canadians seized it on November 6, 1917 in the Third Battle of Ypres (now also known as the Battle of Passchendaele), a campaign now forgotten by most but which at the time cost the lives of a full quarter of a million combatants. That battle was the defining moment of that man’s life. But when I mentioned it in his eulogy, I felt obliged to explain the background as though no one would otherwise recall its details. Yet, when I read what I wrote—and there are scores upon scores of eulogies in that box, including some I have no clear recollection of having delivered—I am struck not by the differences between them, but by the common features they all seem to have.

When I gather information for a eulogy, I’m obviously not interviewing the deceased. I did once have a congregant who took to mailing me an ongoing series of updates regarding her latest undertakings and adventures so that I’d be completely current when I eventually composed her eulogy, which I eventually did. But that was the exception that proves the rule, and mostly I’m speaking to that individual’s children or spouse when I gather the information I need to compose my remarks, or to that person’s siblings or, occasionally, to his or her parents.

What they all have to say is very different in terms of the details of the now-lost life. Some of the people whose eulogies I’ve been reading obsessively for the last few days were very well educated; others didn’t go further than high school. A few didn’t even get that far. Some must have been wealthy. Others, reading between my own lines, must have been of very modest means. But death truly is the great equalizer…and the truths that come through over and over are not shocking or radical, but basic and familiar. The happiest memories are of time spent together as a family. A happy marriage is almost always touted as the great achievement of a lifetime, second only to successful parenting.  Money doesn’t matter, not in the long run…and this appears to be true both with respect to deceased individuals who were rolling in it and those who spent their lives never having quite enough to make ends meet. No one I interview when I prepare a eulogy seems impressed by the things the dead acquired in the course of their short or long lifetimes. Details that feel all-consuming in life—details concerning someone’s physical appearance, for example—are rarely mentioned. Politics, sports, organizational affiliation, advances at work, musical or artistic tastes…these are all referenced, sometimes even emphatically, but when I ask the big question about what the person I am to eulogize was really like and what his or her descendants want me to feature as the crowning achievement of that person’s lifetime, the answers are almost always the same. He was a great husband. She was the best wife. He was the most devoted father. She was an adoring, caring mother whose love for her children knew no bounds. The deceased was a wonderful friend to so many people. And the words that the family wants stressed are almost always the same as well, at least in happy families: generous, kind, loving, caring, decent, charitable, considerate, tolerant, gracious, giving, and good.

I don’t believe I’ve ever had the experience of re-reading so many eulogies one after the next, but it was an instructive exercise…and one I wanted to share with you. And I’ll share with you a confession as well. One of my own habits, slightly chastening and always sobering, has to do with me personally. As I drive home after visiting with the family to cull the information for a eulogy, I almost always find myself wondering what my own people will tell the rabbi when it’s my turn to leave this world to the living and move on to whatever awaits on the other side of the abyss. Will they tell about my books or my e-letters? Will they stress the irony involved in having to eulogize the eulogizer? Will they mention that I somehow managed to lose the same forty pounds twenty different times in the course of what I hope ends up being a very long life? Or will they say of me what I hear people constantly say in the context of these interviews with respect to their own lost loved ones? I don’t ask that question because I wish to answer it out loud, or even because it even could be answered definitively.  Instead, I ask it merely to demonstrate that it can be posed and, if one is all alone in a car driving between a house full of people reeling in the wake of loss and one’s own home…and if one has the courage to look at oneself in the mirror of one’s mind without flinching, I can assure you that one can guess at the answer too. I know what I wish the answer to be! But how exactly to make it so, that is the challenge posed to me over and over on those drives home…and also by the experience of reading a box full of eulogies slowly, one after the next.

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